Kolkata: Months ahead of the assembly elections in West Bengal, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has named Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the chit fund scam it has been probing for six years.
The CBI has now officially linked the chief minister’s paintings to the chit fund owners who allegedly ran a ponzi scheme, while also alleging that the chief minister’s relief fund was used to pay salaries of a private TV channel owned by the Saradha Group.
The charges are in a 277-page petition dated 23 December, accessed by ThePrint, that the CBI has submitted in the Supreme Court. It includes copies of at least 19 letters, sent to the West Bengal government by the CBI between 2014 and 2019, seeking cooperation and requesting handing over of evidence related to the scam.
The CBI move has prompted the ruling Trinamool Congress to term the agency’s action as being guided by “political vendetta” while the opposition BJP claims the CBI has a “watertight” case against the government.
Linking Mamata to the chit fund scam
In 2018, the CBI had seized several paintings by the chief minister, suspecting these had been purchased by some chit fund company owners who were under its scanner.
The agency has put on record that the CM’s paintings were allegedly bought by owners of chit fund companies running ponzi schemes.
“Jago Bangla, admittedly a weekly newspaper and the mouthpiece of All India Trinamool Congress, sold a number of paintings, purportedly drawn by the Chief Minister of State of West Bengal to promoters of Ponzi Companies during 2011-2013,” reads the CBI petition.
“It has come on record that not only M/s Saradha paid funds to the said mouthpiece but other ponzi companies like M/s Rose Valley Group; M/s Tower Group; M/s Pailan Group; M/s Angel Agro Group have also bought paintings worth lakhs of rupees steered by certain persons linked to the highest state authorities.”
The CBI has also accused the state government of non-cooperation and deletion or suppression of evidence. “It is submitted that except cases against M/s Saradha Group, the state SIT never investigated any case against any other group of ponzi companies as mentioned,” reads the plea submitted in the apex court. “That during investigation of the case RC 04/S/204, it was learnt that a list containing names of certain influential persons and a synopsis of evidence against them was submitted by the Government of West Bengal before the Supreme Court of India.”
The CBI has further alleged that the list and the synopsis of evidence were never submitted to the central agency despite several official communications.
Money from CM’s relief fund went to private channel
The CBI has also claimed that it has evidence to establish that around Rs 6.21 crore from the chief minister’s relief funds were used to pay the dues of the employees of a private channel run by the Saradha group of companies.
“An amount of more than Rs. 6.21 crore has already been paid from the (West Bengal) CM Relief Fund (meant for helping victims of natural/unnatural calamities) to M/s Tara TV, which was a media company under M/s Sharda Group of companies. It is submitted that the CM Relief fund has regularly paid the amounts (at the rate of Rs 27 lakhs per month) for a period of 23 months from May 2013 to April 2015,” the CBI document reads. “It is submitted that the said amounts were purportedly given towards salary payments of the employees of the said media company that was under investigation being part of group companies of M/s Saradha Group of Companies.”
It added: “Sudipta Sen (Saradha Group MD) in his letter made public during April 2013 has given a brief account of acquisition of Tara Media Group by M/s Saradha Group and the letter was taken on record by the Bidhannagar Police during investigation. It is submitted that the said fact points towards a larger conspiracy and complicity of high level state authorities.”
In its petition, the CBI has maintained that it wrote to the then chief secretary in 2018 seeking information on “the constitution and functioning of the (West Bengal) Chief Minister’s Relief Fund” but the state government has “parted with incomplete and evasive replies”.
Political vendetta, says Trinamool
The Trinamool Congress has questioned the CBI’s intentions behind the petition, accusing it of a shoddy investigation and “political intimidation”.
“It is shameful for the CBI that it failed to bring the case to a logical conclusion in the past six years, while the maximum punishment for the said charges can go upto only seven years,” Trinamool MP and senior advocate Kalyan Banerjee told ThePrint. “Every time, a few months before elections, the skeletons of the chit fund investigation tumble out. If this is not political vendetta or ways to intimidate one’s political opponent, then what is?”
Commenting on the charges of non-cooperation by the government, he said, “Bengal government is the accused entity here. The SC directed the CBI to probe, because the Bengal police was accused of being partisan. So, how can CBI depend on the accused party for evidence? How can they expect that the accused agencies would cooperate? They should have probed the case on their own. It is the CBI’s failure.”
He added that the former Trinamool leaders, who are also accused in the case, have now joined BJP. “Why is there no mention of the accused Trinamool leaders who are now with the BJP? Have they been washed of their misdeeds in Modi’s washing machine?” Banerjee asked.
The opposition BJP, however, claimed the agency has a solid case. “This is such a solid case; there is no escape route for Mamata Banerjee’s government,” said BJP national general secretary and party’s West Bengal in-charge Kailash Vijayvargiya.